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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

April 24, 2018: Assassination Studying: James Garfield

[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On the mundane nature of our second presidential assassination, and why it matters.
As I’ll discuss more in Thursday’s post, the Lincoln assassination was literally and figuratively dramatic (if not melodramatic) in numerous ways: from its theatrical setting and actor assassin through many other heightened and extreme details, moments, and contexts. Interestingly enough, our second presidential assassination, the shooting of President James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on July 2nd, 1881, was instead in many ways at the thoroughly mundane end of the spectrum. Guiteau was a disgruntled office seeker who had supported Garfield’s candidacy, believed he was owed a foreign service position, and when denied that opportunity decided to kill Garfield in the hopes that his Vice President, Chester Arthur, would be more willing to appoint men like Guiteau to such roles. After he shot Garfield while the president waited for a train to New Jersey for his summer vacation, each man’s actions and statements reflect the moment’s mundane qualities: Garfield simply exclaimed, “My god, what is this?”; while Guiteau was captured immediately and stated, “I did it. I will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.”
That relatively mundane quality to the Garfield assassination reflects some important historical contexts. The Lincoln assassination had been perceived as an anomaly, as part of the Civil War’s violence and extremes, to the point where Garfield did not have any sort of armed guard with him in public settings like the train station; even this assassination did not fully change that narrative, as the Secret Service did not formally add presidential protection to their duties until after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. The motivation behind this assassination was likewise far different from the multi-layered Confederate conspiracy of which John Wilkes Booth was part; Guiteau was a strikingly ordinary man (he didn’t even speak French, despite his desire for the position of Consul to France) who embodied the era’s consistent but hardly world-changing debates over patronage, government office-holding, and related issues. I don’t mean in any way to downplay the horror or tragedy of Garfield’s shooting and death (particularly the gruesome fact that he was in intensive care for eleven weeks before succumbing to his wounds on September 19th), but compared to the Lincoln assassination this second presidential shooting was as undramatic as it gets.
Perhaps due to that lack of drama, I would argue that the Garfield assassination is far less present in our collective memories than Lincoln’s (or Kennedy’s, although of course television and video contributed mightily to the latter’s prominence). Yet as I just noted, those very mundane qualities can tell us a good bit about the assassination’s historical moment and contexts. Moreover, as I argued in this post, in just a few months in office Garfield had already begun a number of important efforts; fortunately his successor Arthur continued many of them, but nonetheless the assassination represented (as they always do) a political and social attack just as much as a personal and violent one. Finally, I would also argue that the mundane side to the Garfield assassination itself reflects a step in the gradual acceptance of political violence as a possibility (if not a reality) within our society, a shift that would likewise have to be linked to the rise of guns and gun violence as a part of America’s social landscape. All reasons to better remember our second presidential assassination, relatively boring as it might be.
Next assassination studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?

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